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European Union Take Proactive Stance against MP3-Induced Hearing Loss

You know those ubiquitous ear buds – those mini-headphones – attached to an MP3 player or iPod? You see them on the streets in town. You see them as kids ride the school bus each day. And if you live with 'tweens or teens, chances are you see them at the dinner table.

One teen reports that he sleeps with those ear buds in place, listening to loud tunes as he snores through the night. And the fact is, it is not just teens pumping tunes through earbuds – adults are also plugged and tuned in.

So what, right? Most of us grew up with loud music pumping from our 8-tracks and Sony Walkmans through over-the-ear headphones. So, let the kids (and their older siblings) enjoy the same experience we enjoyed, playing Sly Stone at ear-popping levels as we drove through town in our pimped-out, pumped up ’57 Chevys.

Well, if you’re a Boomer (see description above), you probably already know what the problem is. All those Grace Slick high notes really DID harm our hearing, just like mom said. “Turn that music down before you go deaf.” Sound familiar? Should have listened.

The European Union (EU) Takes a Firm Stance against Hearing Loss

mp3 induced hearing loss
So little but oh so dangerous

In October, 2008, the EU Scientific Committee (SCENIHR) warned (sternly) that “listening to personal music players [iPods and MP3 players] at a high volume over a sustained period of time can lead to permanent hearing damage.” Hardly new news.

We’ve known that loud noise, over time, DOES lead to hearing loss, whether that noise comes in the form of loud music from a personal music player or the general din of the factory floor. So, today, employers in the U.S. and Europe routinely provide hearing protection in the form of ear plugs or hear-through hearing protection devices to prevent severe hearing loss.

Ah, but what about those personal music players? Fact is there are no limits on how loud manufacturers can pump up the amperage. So, the makers of these devices keep adding circuitry that boosts sound volumes to dangerous levels.

SCENIHR, the EU’s scientific arm, reports that as many as one in 10 Europeans experience hearing loss due to extended, constant use of personal listening devices. But this is more than just a personal hearing loss problem. With 10% of the population in Europe (the numbers are comparable in the U.S.) experiencing hearing loss, this isn’t some minor problem that can and should be taken care of at home. It’s a problem for the larger community.In the U.S., 28 million people report some degree of hearing loss. You have to figure that some respondents didn’t even hear the question, so the number is probably higher.

In the States, there are no standards for maximum loudness settings of personal listening devices. And the makers of personal listening devices know that their target demographic likes it loud so these 21st century music boxes just keep getting louder and louder.

The EU is putting their foot down by implementing mandated limits on how loud personal music players can be.

EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner, Meglena Kuneva, stated, “It’s easy to push up the sound levels of MP3 players to damagingly loud levels, especially on busy streets or [on] public transport. And the evidence is that particularly young people who are listening to music at high volumes sometimes for hours each week have no idea they can be putting their hearing at risk.

It can take years for the hearing damage to show,” the Commissioner explained, “and then it’s simply too late. These [recently implemented] standards make small technical changes to that by default, normal use that is safe. If consumers choose to override the default settings they can, but there will be clear warnings so they know the risks they are taking.”

The Hearing Loss Prevention Proposal

The recently proposed hearing loss prevention standards announced in September 2009 by the EU, cover all personal music players and mobile phones with a music playing function. It provides that “safe exposure levels shall be the default settings on products”. The mandate further distinguishes that safe levels are dependent on both exposure time and volume levels.

In addition to lower-threshold, default settings for personal listening devices, the EU regulations require manufacturers place big ol’ warning labels explaining the dangers these digital gizmos present when used improperly.

Although the standards are not mandatory for manufactures, the EU expects this to become the norm as manufacturers not complying with the new standards will have to go through costly independent testing for products

Consider Your Own Listening Habits

If you’re like most of us, you use your iPod, or other personal listening device, to either block out the loud, ambient sounds around you or pump it up during your daily workout.

The problem, of course, is that to mask all that street noise or factory floor noise or whatever noise you’re trying to block out, you have to crank up the MP3 volume so it’s LOUDER than the noise surrounding you. So sure, you can block out all that rumble and ruckus. But you aren’t doing your ears any favors, that’s a fact.

On the other hand, many of us use our MP3s to listen to the latest best-seller on audio, read by some experienced professional narrator or, sometimes, the author herself. In these cases, chances are you listen at lower levels. No one wants someone shouting in his ear – even if it is a professional narrator with golden pipes.

Hearing Loss = Hearing Volume x Length of Listening Time

Here is the deal. One loud song probably won’t damage your hearing (unless it is over 140 dB which is unlikely with a music player, shot gun yes). However, if you listen to multiple songs at a crazy high level for an extended amount of time – you will damage your hearing.

In a previous article on Healthy Hearing, Earbud Ear: Fast Track to Hearing Loss, noise expert Dr. Brian Fligor explained safe listening is a combination of noise level and length of time listening.

Since consumer can’t measure the actual level they are listening at, the best recommendation Dr. Fligor can give is, "Limit the time you listen at high volumes. Then, give your ears a rest recovery time. If you give your ears the chance, hearing returns to normal levels. The key is to take time out and go unplugged."

Dr. Fligor went on to explain, "What we've learned in our studies is that listening levels are determined by background noise. The louder the background noise, the higher the listening level of MP3 users trying to block out that background noise…"

By reducing background noise, you are able listen at lower levels for a longer amount of time and reduce your chances of damage.

What Can You Do to Prevent Hearing Loss?

Simple. Really simple.

  • Set the volume control a notch or two lower than your normal listening level.
  • Read the owner’s manual. Usually in the specs section you’ll see how much sound that unit and headphones can deliver, a figure measured in decibels (dBs). The more dBs, the louder the sound. Know what the max volume of your personal music player is. Then, dial it back a few notches. Listening at less than 85 db SPL is the safest.
  • Reduce background noise so you are less likely to turn the volume up. You can do this by purchasing noise-cancelling headphones to block out competing background noise.
  • Unplug and give your ears frequent breaks throughout the day.
  • Time your listening. Don’t put those ear buds in on the way to work and disconnect when you get home where you’re now blasted by that pricey surround sound system hooked up to a gigantic flat screen. Tune out for at least part of each day.
  • Exposure to loud noise places a strain on nature’s hearing mechanism, causing the creation of free radicals – naturally-occurring molecules associated with bodily injury, like cuts and bruises, and damage to the hearing mechanism. To combat free radicals that damage nature’s hearing system parts, eat foods that are high in anti-oxidants, the natural-born enemy of free radicals. Leafy green veggies like spinach, arugula, broccoli and foods like fish, soy and dairy products also develop the materials required for the body to create anti-oxidants.
  • Take control of your listening habits. Here’s the deal: hearing loss caused by too much exposure to loud noise is totally, 100% controllable by you – the listener.
  • Another factoid? Noise-induced hearing loss is almost always permanent. Gradual, but permanent. You may not feel the effects of your listening habits today for years to come. But everyday you spend plugged in to the loud, thumping bass, you’re adding to the damage that’s already done.

Currently, the United States does NOT regulate volume levels for personal listening devices, so kids (who think they’re immortal) pump up the funk without a thought given to the long-term consequences. However, it hopefully won’t be long before U.S. legislators follow in the footsteps of our European friends.

In the meantime, it’s up to you to take responsibility for the hearing health of your kids, spouse and, of course, your own hearing health.

You wouldn’t let your child light up a cigarette because you know well the health dangers. Same is true of listening to music at loud volume settings for long periods of time. If that sounds like you, your spouse or your teen-ager, time to have a sit-down to discuss the dangers MP3 players present.

In the case of hearing loss and personal music devices, common sense is all you need. Loud but not long or softer but longer – you make the choice. And, you can influence your family, as well.

Even if you have to lock up the iPod for a few hours. You and your family will enjoy hearing health longer.

So go unplugged for a part of each day.

Hear better. Hear longer. It really is that simple.

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